Soraya Peerbaye on how poetry can help us witness what cannot be witnessed
The Griffin Prize finalist discusses how Reena Virk inspired her poetry collection.
For eight days, Reena Virk's lifeless body lay in the Gorge Waterway in Victoria, B.C. Virk, 14 and the daughter of Indian immigrants, had been brutally beaten by a group of teenagers. Two of her peers, Kelly Ellard, 15, and Warren Glowatski, 16, were convicted of murder and six girls - aged 14 to 16 were sentenced for their role in the assault. The case made international headlines.
Toronto poet Soraya Peerbaye captures the 1997 case in her poetry collection Tell: poems for a girlhood, which was a finalist for the 2016 Griffin Poetry Prize.
WHY SHE WAS DRAWN TO REENA'S STORY
I wanted to write about this event because I was moved by it. It was was of those stories that was really affecting not only for the brutality that Reena Virk, endured but also just understanding a small piece of who she was and how hard she wanted to be part of a group of her peers and how badly she tried. There was an extraordinary bravery in who she was and how she was trying to navigate the world that hadn't yet been acknowledged. It was witnessing, or an attempt to witness, something that can't be witnessed. I was very conscious while writing the book that dealing with something factual, something historical, an experience someone had lived, an experienced that someone died, I was very conscious that there wasn't an act of imagination that was going o be able to replicate her pain.
HOW POETRY CAN HELP US WITNESS
I attended the 2004 and 2005 trials of Kelly Ellard. I went looking for something, to hear something from the young witnesses - which ultimately I didn't find - in terms of understanding why they did what they did. I originally thought I might try to write a play. At a certain point, it only became possible to write about it through poetry. One of the things that poetry makes possible is it allows you to feel your way through gaps in understanding. Poetry made it possible to create a structure around what wasn't said in the trials. It wasn't about having understood what Reena Virk was going through or understanding who her tormenters were. It was the reverse, trying to articulate why I am placing myself in relation to this.
Soraya Peerbaye reads "Rainfall" from Tell:
Soraya Peerbaye's comments have been edited and condensed.